Welcome!

If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Pledge Night (1990)

OCTOBER 10, 2019

GENRE: SLASHER, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Since original slasher movies were no longer really hitting theaters by the late 80s, the few that were still being made (more or less exclusively for the video market) tend to be a bit "off" in one way or another. The lack of having to care about mainstream appeal, the drive to do something different in a genre few were still paying attention to... there were several reasons why these films don't bother to stick to the proven formula. And with Freddy escaping the pack to become the most commercially successful of the horror icons (hitting his box office peak in 1987-88), it's no surprise that the killer of Pledge Night, Sid (played by Joey Belladonna from Anthrax) is cut from similar cloth, i.e. he's horribly burned and has a tendency to say something "funny" before and/or after a kill.

But again, the movie's carving its own path, so he also doesn't show up for almost an hour (there are two killers - a crazed pledge at first, then Sid). The elements are all there for a standard kind of slasher movie; our protagonists are the pledges for a fraternity, on their final night of hazing before being sworn in as brothers, and the "little sisters" are hanging around to prepare the food and other things they need to do for their oft-disgusting trials - the fodder is established quite quickly. But writer/producer Joyce Snyder was more interested in showing what frat hazing was like than the killer stuff, despite the objections of director/editor Paul Ziller, making it come off as more of a comedy as there's almost nothing to even hint at this being a horror movie in the first 40 minutes or so. Naturally, that might be too much to ask for some folks.

In fact, even though it's a standard "victim of a prank comes back" type of backstory, they don't even show you that part until quite a ways into the runtime, as opposed to the opening scene like pretty much every other revenge slasher like this, which could have bought them some time. And with the relatively large cast, the late start for the carnage means the killer works his way through everyone fairly quickly once he finally gets going, so don't hope for much suspense or chase scenes (it's been a dire week for well paced slashers here at HMAD). It's almost like they just wanted to make a movie about hazing and got forced to add some horror elements in the last week of production.

That said, the hazing half of the movie actually kind of works on its own, despite the lack of slashing. Per Snyder, they're all real things that frat pledges have to go through, and they never make it look particularly fun - sleeping on the hard floor with no blankets, digesting things that probably shouldn't be digested, etc. There's even a bit where they pour honey on the pledges' faces and then drop cockroaches on them - and yes it's actually done for real on camera, making it the most horrifying thing in the movie by far. And it's not just a string of dares; they occasionally have to pep talk one another to get through the next step, allowing the movie to actually humanize (slightly) a frat guy, which is no easy task. The humor is a little dated of course, but it's earnest and in line with frat comedies of the 80s, so there's a sincerity that I found charming. And while they aren't exactly "woke" they're not horrible human beings either - only the head guy who was carrying out some of the harsher punishments (including an ass-branding) fell into "I want to see this guy die" territory; the others were all more or less in that sweet spot of "I don't love this guy so much that I'll be sad when he dies but I'm not rooting for his death either."

So it's a shame that Sid (the killer) doesn't have any real motive for killing them specifically, as they weren't the ones who killed him 20 years earlier. With the Freddy influence apparent I guess it's more of a "revenge on their kids" kinda deal, but with the only parent we see being the mother to the one person Sid doesn't want to harm (for very obvious plot reasons), if that was the intent it doesn't land. It actually worked better when it was Dan, the aforementioned first killer who is just a frat guy who snapped and started offing his brothers. With the simple "he's crazy" plot, it all works just fine - but suddenly Sid just tears through Dan's body (think Freddy's Revenge), and it's like you're watching the sequel already, where the human killer had been offed so they had to go the supernatural route for part 2.

Had the movie been paced normally, this might have worked just fine, but it's like we waited too long for Dan to start killing as is, only for him to be unceremoniously removed from the film in favor of a different killer. It feels like a bit of a reset, so by the time Sid hits his own groove, the movie's basically about to end. I wish Ziller had put his foot down and gotten to the horror sooner - I think this would be easier to recommend if not for Snyder (who put up the money as well) insisting that they basically make two different movies and stitch them together out of nowhere at the halfway point. Closest comparison I could make is From Dusk Till Dawn, but at least there the vampire twist was basically another obstacle between Seth and freedom - this lacks that kind of character journey to keep following.

Vinegar Syndrome's disc looks quite good and has some nice extras, so existing fans shouldn't be disappointed. It lacks a commentary unfortunately, but Ziller, Snyder, and some of the cast all appear in lengthy interviews, and there's a quick piece on how the shooting locations look today, plus the trailer, which unsurprisingly plays up the horror stuff as if it was a throughline for the entire movie as opposed to its final 25 minutes or so. Luckily, I was warned that it takes a while to get going, so I didn't mind it too much - I was more disappointed that the slasher stuff wasn't all that great once it finally started. It's kind of like Killer Party in that respect, but at least that movie's weirdo nonsense (not to mention earlier introduction of the supernatural plot) kept it better paced overall. So I dunno, it's kind of amusing, and there's nothing particularly bad about it, but it never fully finds its footing either. Your call!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Prey (1983)

OCTOBER 8, 2019

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (SCREENER DISC)

The problem with my ongoing quest to see every slasher film produced in the 1980s is that I've seen all the ones that are good, I think - because otherwise I would have been compelled enough to see them by now, right? But at least those old ones that slipped through the cracks can usually offer something interesting, unlike a modern slasher shot for roughly the same money, on someone's iPhone, with After Effects blood FX. Such is the case with The Prey, which was shot in 1979 but not released until 1983, and has two versions available on Arrow's special edition Blu-ray - I remember reading somewhere along the line that it was a pretty dull entry in the "campers in the woods get killed by a mountain mutant" slasher sub-sub-genre, but I didn't know how wacky its production was, and learning about that was probably more entertaining than the film.

In fact I learned some of the backstory inadvertently, as soon as I popped the disc in. Since I got "check discs", which are essentially DVD-Rs with no labeling of use to anyone, and it's a two disc set, I grabbed one of the discs marked "The Prey" with a bunch of meaningless numbers after it, only to be greeted with a message saying that this was the international cut that the director didn't approve of, which seemed odd to me until I realized I had probably put the second disc in and should get the other. But I was already intrigued, so while the other one was loading up I looked online and saw that the "international cut" ran about 17 minutes longer and added a lengthy flashback that explained the killer's origins, while also removing "most of the film's nature footage". This of course meant nothing to me yet since I hadn't seen the film, so I filed the info away and didn't think much of it...

...until about four minutes into the film, after I had seen what seemed like the 47th shot of a wildlife critter (sometimes stock footage, sometimes seemingly shot for the production). It was then that I realized that maybe this so-called international cut might be the superior one, but I had to know what my slasher enthusiast ancestors dealt with in theaters or cable back then, and put myself in their shoes. The wildlife footage never ceased or even slowed as the film progressed - you're never more than about 30 seconds from another shot of an owl, or a vulture, or a bug, or just some flowers or trees. It's clearly padding since the film still doesn't even hit the 80 minute mark (credits run a bit slow too), but the secondary excuse is to try to draw a parallel between the predator/prey relationship between animals in the woods and the killer with his victims. It kind of works, but its minimal impact would be the same if there was just a handful of such shots bookending the film instead of several minutes' worth of the runtime.

Director Edwin Brown doesn't just rely on animals to get the movie up to feature length - we're also treated to things like the ranger character tuning his guitar, or his boss trying a sandwich, plus any number of (seemingly improvised, poorly) scenes where our heroes chitchat. There's nothing wrong with the blather in itself - the problem is that these practically muttered bits of dialogue are the focus of the scene, as opposed to something we are overhearing to show how oblivious the characters are to the dangerous killer watching them as they yammer on. The killer's presence is always announced with a heartbeat motif and POV shots, so we know when he's there or when we're just suffering through amateur actors trying their best to recreate the sort of "So you DO think about things like that, Laurie!" dialogue Brown half-remembered from Halloween a year before he shot this fluff.

As for the kills, Brown makes the rookie mistake of stringing most of them together in a brief span (maybe four minutes?) near the end of the film, instead of spacing them out, but I guess I can forgive that since Halloween was the only game in town at the time and they weren't exactly spread evenly. The difference is that Myers' presence and trick playing kept that film engaging and suspenseful - the laundry room sequence in Halloween is just as scary as any kill, after all - but this movie lacks that sort of thing, so it's just dull. At least the kills are kind of fun; there's an axe murder, a guy rappelling down a cliffside only to have his progress sped up by the killer cutting his rope, and - my favorite - one of the girls running, only to trigger a trap that loops her upside down and slams her into a tree, smashing her skull. It's clumsily staged, but since the one who got killed is more recognizable than the other, AND she neglected to have sex with her boyfriend earlier when the others were fooling around, so I thought she might be the final girl, making it a surprise that she died at all, let alone got the most memorable death.

Despite not loving the film by any means, I was still curious about the longer cut, so I watched it a couple hours later and was surprised to discover that it's actually a better version, and almost wish I had watched it first after all. Yes, it's longer, but they cut all of the animals out, which makes the film seem less aimless; it's still too slow but in a way that feels more like a failed attempt at building suspense as opposed to simply padding the film out however possible. The reason it ends up longer despite removing all of the padding is because it presents a 20 minute flashback sequence that explains who the killer was and how he ended up being burned - but the real reason for the sequence is because the UK distributor wanted more sex in the film. So they cast this sequence with adult film actors, and while the sex scenes aren't exactly hardcore, they're certainly more graphic than one might expect from a traditional slasher of the era. Ironically, Brown had come from an adult film background and was hoping to show he could do other things with this one, only for an uncredited filmmaker to go ahead and practically turn it into one behind his back.

It's also ironic that the director's preferred version is the weaker of the two, in my opinion. But if you love his cut (or both of them) you will be ecstatic to know how jam-packed Arrow's Blu is. Interviews with most of the surviving cast, two commentary tracks (plus an audio interview with Brown that is presented as a commentary), a THIRD cut that basically adds the gypsy/sex sequence to the version that has all of the animal footage, a Q&A from a convention screening, a visit of the shooting locations... even if I flat out loved the movie I don't know if I'd be able to get through it all in a timely manner. I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: every film deserves a special edition like this, so that the people who love it can get as much behind the scenes info as they desire. I may not be able to count myself among this movie's fanbase (it does exist; the convention-based bonus features prove it), but I'm happy for them that they don't have to go without, especially for a film that never even made it to DVD here in the US. Good on you, Arrow.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Lodge (2019)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2019

GENRE: PSYCHOLOGICAL, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (BEYOND FEST)

Having missed the first few nights of Beyond Fest due to unexpected medical issues (bleeding ulcer, I'm OK now I think), I finally got to make my first trip there for The Lodge, which is an unusual way to kick things off. The fest routinely programs wild/outlandish fare (both new and old), and this film is a "slow burn" type that keeps its insanity confined to the mind of one of its characters - the sort of thing I'd expect to watch on a quiet night at home, not at the same festival that frequently employs the use of T-shirt cannons and eating contests. That said, it was an intriguing and mostly successful example of its kind, not to mention the best new Hammer film since Wake Wood, and will do well with folks who don't mind their horror to be a little on the moody and atmospheric side.

Riley Keough stars as Grace, a woman who is about to marry a man with two children from a previous marriage. The kids naturally don't like her all that much, so the dad (Richard Armitage) figures maybe spending the holidays at his cabin will help them bond a bit - especially during a three day period right before Christmas Day that he has to return to the city for some work matters. Naturally, things don't go too swimmingly - a snowstorm confines them to the lodge, which then loses power to boot. And worst of all - one morning they wake up to find all of their belongings missing, with Grace suspecting her will-be stepchildren of doing it on purpose to drive her crazy. But as it gets colder and their supplies run out, could the kids really be to blame when they're at risk as well? Is someone else in the house with them, or are supernatural forces the real culprit?

Naturally I won't spoil that for you, but I will say that up until the point we have our answer, the film works terrifically. Keough (no stranger to slow burn/isolated thriller fare, having appeared in the very undercooked It Comes At Night) has a tough role to play and she handles it well, as Grace isn't just the usual "stepmom" kind of character who oversteps her boundaries and needs to prove herself. No, she's actually the lone survivor of a Heaven's Gate-style cult led by her father (so essentially she's Jennifer Rubin from Bad Dreams!), and clearly hasn't fully adjusted to normal life yet - established by some medication she needs to take, which is of course among the things that go missing along with the rest of their stuff. So as her mind cracks even further, she switches from protagonist to antagonist, as we fear for the lives of the children - all the while remembering that they may be the true villains all along.

And it's easy enough to believe they may be, as this is from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. They are the team that gave us the evil child movie Goodnight Mommy, and the film shares a number of similarities - up to and including spending the entire movie wondering if we can trust its lead actress. Thankfully their approach has improved; I enjoyed Goodnight Mommy but my overall opinion was stymied by the way they handled their key twist, as I never could tell if it was even SUPPOSED to be one (in that it was so obvious to me by the film's twenty minute mark I wasn't sure if it was something they were even trying to hide). Here, it's clear that they don't want you to be that far ahead, allowing for a little more variety in the action and a little less time spent wondering how I as a viewer was supposed to be taking in this or that scene, so overall I found it to be a better film.

Unfortunately, once they do tell us exactly what happened, the movie kind of fizzles. As with Us, it almost might have been better to leave things unexplained, because by opening that Pandora's Box I found myself left with more questions (chiefly among them: what exactly was ______ hoping to accomplish?), and less engaged with the film's climax than I should have been. It's not that the answer is bad on its own, it's just that it's not particularly well developed, and even somewhat contradicts earlier information (can't really explain that one without spoiling, so I'll just say to consider an early scene involving a computer). There's also a curious lack of information about how Grace ended up with Armitage's character - the kids say she's a psychopath "from Dad's books" but his job is so vague I'm not even sure if they mean a book he wrote or a book he owned (and if he's an author, what kind of backwards ass movie writer is this where he has to LEAVE his isolated cabin to get some work done?).

But until then, they really had me hooked in - for proof, I stayed awake the entire time even though I was still very much low energy thanks to my hospital stay (and, as a result of the prognosis, I certainly wasn't partaking in anything sugary or with caffeine). The production design alone made the film worth watching - as with Hereditary, there's a bit of a dollhouse motif that spreads to the real sets, as everything seems just slightly off (in this case, hallways seem unnaturally narrow, while the bedrooms have awkward amounts of space between furniture), and Thimios Bakatakis' camera almost never stops gliding and slow zooming its way around the areas. And it pays tribute to its snowbound horror masters in both overt (they literally watch The Thing) and subtle (Grace's dog is named Grady, heh). Also, Keough sports some very excellent sweaters - as my rare chances to wear my sweaters are the thing I hate most about living in California, I find myself increasingly drawn to people wearing them in movies, the way wannabe gangsters idolize The Godfather and what not.

It's a shame Neon won't be releasing the film until February; its snowy look and Christmas setting would sell more tickets in November or December I'd think, but what do I know? It's the one thing I dislike about reviewing festival films - by the time it's out, I might forget a few things and not have the time for a second watch, so more people will be seeing it and I'll have trouble remembering what they're referring to, especially when by spoiler law I had to be vague with my review and won't be able to consult it for any specific reminders. The blunder in the last reel isn't crippling; it isn't the first and won't be the last movie that couldn't quite maintain its allure in the home stretch, especially among these slow burn types. Here's hoping the marketing doesn't spoil its surprises (the below trailer doesn't give too much away, though as always it's better to go in blind for these kind of films) and that it finds the folks who will enjoy it - and that Franz & Fiala's next film manages to make its ambiguous nature pay off in the end, instead of unnecessarily restraining it.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Polaroid (2017)

SEPTEMBER 19, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL, TEEN
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)

NOTE - Dimension invited me to see this movie back in 2017, when it was still scheduled for release that December. I assume their troubles have kept them from bothering to tinker with it, so now that it's finally here - dumped onto VOD - I am finally publishing the review I wrote then and can presumably stand by it.

I'm gonna be up front with you guys: I am currently 37 years old, which is about twenty years over the range of Polaroid's target audience. While some PG-13 films aren't necessarily aimed at younger audiences (What Lies Beneath being one of the best examples, in that only a middle aged adult could possibly find that movie entertaining), this one focuses on high school students and their various teenager issues (i.e. Will the popular guy at school notice our introverted teenager? And will her single mother stop working double shifts long enough to stay home and have dinner with her?), and even more notably has a plot that hinges on taking a picture at a "the parents are out of town" house party. It's the sort of movie that will be frequently rented for sleepovers and might even be the gateway for a few kids who weren't allowed to see It or Annabelle - but that doesn't mean it's a waste of time for adults, either.

Indeed, among these Ring-type horror movies (where a device of some sort turns out to be haunted) it's actually one of the better ones, thanks to a few smart choices, a likable group of protagonists, and (thankfully) a minimum of fake scares like overly loud doorbells or whatever. As you might expect from the title, the haunted object this time around is a Polaroid camera, which our photographer and antique-loving heroine Bird (Kathryn Prescott) is gifted from her coworker who found it at a yard sale ("It even has a few rolls of film," he tells us, so that we don't have to wonder how someone can find old-school Polaroid film in their small town in the year 2017). Thanks to an otherwise unnecessary prologue we already know the camera is haunted, so we're able to move right along - she uses it to take a picture of the coworker in order to test it out, and then she goes to a party and takes a picture of her friends, plus another solo shot of the mean girl who is hosting the party. The coworker and the mean girl are offed that night, and Bird quickly realizes that everyone who gets their picture taken with it will die.

Yes, this is a goofy plot, but then again so is watching a VHS tape and dying a week later, so we can't really complain. In fact, part of what makes the movie work is that the script doesn't act embarrassed about its own plot by having everyone keep saying "You're crazy!" or whatever. After the two acquaintances are killed, she tells her other friends (the ones in the group photo) what seems to be going on, and instantly one of them tries to burn the picture - which causes his girlfriend's arm to catch on fire, and no one can extinguish it until Bird stomps out the fire on the photo. The photo then magically reforms itself right in front of them, so they all have seen its supernatural powers with their own eyes, rather than the usual "doubt until it's too late" approach that so many others opt to try. By skipping past the naysaying, we are able to introduce new wrinkles and avoid deja vu - hell the backstory doesn't even require finding a body entombed in a wall or whatever and in need of a proper burial!

The backstory is actually fairly disturbing, almost to the point of making me wonder why they were so teen-centric with the rest of the movie as it deals with some rather upsetting material that parents might not be down with their kids hearing about at this juncture. Also, the casting of a key role in the mystery (which doesn't really kick in until the third act, once we've gotten the cast whittled down a bit) is a bit on the nose, as the actor/actress is most famous for playing a very similar role (hint: they reprised it this year) and I honestly can't tell if it's genius or an inadvertent spoiler. Speaking of the cast, I trust you'll all be as happy as I was to see Mitch Pileggi show up as the town's sheriff and pretty much the only skeptic in the film, as he doesn't witness the haunted camera as the other characters do. Not only is it always fun to see him on screen, it's particularly amusing to see Horace "Shocker" Pinker scoff at the idea that a dead killer might be using an electronic device to rack up more victims from beyond the grave.

That's another thing I enjoyed about the movie: the makers seem to have an affinity for the genre, but don't stoop to rubbing our noses in it. There are no overt references to other films - I just got the sense that they had seen the same ones and were trying to avoid copying them too much, while still hitting all the beats that the target audience would need for the film to hold their interest. It's not exactly deconstructing anything, but like, when she tries to take a picture of her dog and he runs away before she can, I couldn't help but think "OK, they've seen Wish Upon too and don't want to repeat their mistake of killing the damn dog off to show us how it works" (I know that this film was shot before Wish Upon's release and therefore that can't be the exact case - it's just the example that came to mind, so just go with the general idea). Likewise, when the popular boy she likes starts talking to her, you worry it's because he's an asshole and there's some prank coming (i.e. a character to hate whose death we can enjoy), but he's a genuinely good dude who goes above and beyond to help her solve the mystery. In fact, as I mentioned all the kids are pretty likable; one gets heated when he realizes they're all targeted and kind of blames Bird for their predicament, but he makes up for it after a bit (and she holds no grudge against him, either) so it comes off as believable panic and frustration as opposed to another modern horror flick where everyone seems to hate their friends.

As for the PG-13 rating, it's not too much of a crutch. Again, the backstory is pretty dark, and one character is split in half (albeit with nary a drop of bloodspray), so it at least pushes the limits of the restriction. I don't think it was cut down to be softer (this IS a Dimension film after all, so the possibility is always there), though there were a few scenes where it seemed like conversations were trimmed in order to move things along. I'm sure it was all just needless exposition or insignificant character backstory kind of stuff, i.e. nothing that would be missed; it's only noticeable because a character will say like "OK, great!" or something along those lines when the other person wasn't really saying anything that would produce that kind of a response. But anything seems Oscar-worthy after the abominations of Rings and Wish Upon, the latter of which didn't even seem like they actually finished it yet, so I probably shouldn't even note it.

Long story short, this is the sort of movie that could have very easily annoyed the shit out of me and had me saying things like "teens deserve better". But it's made with some basic intelligence and a refreshing lack of aiming for the lowest common denominator. It's not particularly great or anything, but as I've said in the past, if I can moderately enjoy a film when I'm technically old enough to be a parent to its target audience, then I think they've done their job well, and that's fine by me. The snowy climate was also a plus (I'm never going to get over the loss of the snowbound Friday the 13th movie) and they kept the CGI villain to a minimum (and he didn't really look all that bad - plus the "melting film" effect we'd see when he was moving or being injured was kind of cool), so overall it's a "more right than wrong" kinda deal. "The year's best teen horror!" might be dim praise, but it's better than sucking outright, no?

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

SEPTEMBER 13, 2019

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

I honestly don't know when the last time I watched Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses in its entirety, in fact it's possible that I only saw it the one time, theatrically (where I dozed off for a bit to boot). I could have sworn I watched my DVD at some point before Devil's Rejects came along, but today I found myself struggling with Lionsgate's notoriously obnoxious security adhesive (where they seal all three sides of the disc, and use a sticky solution that often leaves residue on the case) as I opened it for the first time. With 3 From Hell coming in a couple days, I wanted to refresh my memory, but as I watched the film I realized my memories were so poor it was essentially like watching the movie for the first time.

Indeed, even two of my "specific" memories of the film turned out to be wrong. I thought I remembered a scene of Baby (Sheri Moon) ordering pizza, but it was just booze - I had it mixed up with Texas Chainsaw 4 I guess? And then I vividly remembered the scene where Bill Moseley executes a man, depicted via a long slow-motion crane shot, but in my head it was the father of one of the girls the Firefly family was terrorizing - this was also wrong, as the father was gunned down earlier in the sequence. No, the man who got the crane shot was none other than Walton Goggins, a name I was surprised to see in the credits anyway, further proving how long it had been since I took a look at the film (yes, I remembered that Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwick were the two male heroes).

In turn, the movie was better than I remembered. I wouldn't say I loved it - it's kind of all over the place and has about two too many villains - but I was never bored, and found myself frequently impressed by how much memorable imagery Zombie managed to cram into the 88 minutes of his very inexpensive movie. The set dressing alone is on par with things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Nothing But Trouble, in that you can watch the movie a dozen times and still be noticing strange props and decor around the (equally colorful) characters. The Natural Born Killers-esque cutaways (recolored footage, video mixed with film, etc) get a bit overused, but otherwise I was impressed by how clearly Zombie established himself as a filmmaker in his first attempt.

Granted if you hate his "thing" then there's no chance to enjoy the movie, but just as I came around on his 2nd Halloween entry (in director's cut form) I found myself really appreciating how he was basically applying his distinctive style to a particular brand of horror (in this case, a Texas Chainsaw kind of thing, though he has some Eaten Alive in there too). I remember someone saying that if they had to guess what a Rob Zombie was like (for better or worse), their mental image would be almost identical to his film 31 - but they were saying it dismissively, whereas I kind of love that I know what I'll get when I sit down for one of his movies. If he was making them every year, I'm sure it'd get tiresome, but 3 From Hell will be his 3rd movie in the past decade - that's a big enough gap in between to enjoy his hillbilly hijinks as a diversion from the supernatural horror movies that make up an increasing percentage of what horror films are playing in our multiplexes.

It's also legitimately tense at times. The finale is kind of a dud (Zombie always knew this, for what it's worth) but there are some really great sequences along the way to make up for it. The first big attack on the group as they attempt to escape is fairly harrowing (and again, this was a movie released at a time that the likes of Darkness Falls was able to top the box office), and even the fakeout bits, like Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, in what was his first major role in years) pretending to get angry at Wilson's character for mocking him, carry their fair share of unnerving energy. Also, Zombie's penchant for zooms and film distortion lends the film the appropriate "grindhouse" flair four (really seven since it was filmed) years prior to the film Grindhouse, so he deserves some credit for bringing that sensibility into the mainstream long before it became tiresome.

Its only real flaw (again, if you're on board with its general vibe in the first place; it's admittedly a tough sell) is that it's got so much packed into it, it ultimately kind of feels like Zombie lost interest in his own villains. The final 15 minutes finds the one survivor (Erin Daniels) facing off against Dr. Satan (a character we've heard about but not interacted with) and his creations, leaving Moseley and Sheri Moon pretty much on the sidelines, which is not only awkward but simply unsatisfying - it'd be like if Sally Hardesty's final ordeal found her fighting off the random drunk from the cemetery instead of Leatherface. There's also an ongoing subplot about five cheerleaders that is continually referred to for a solid hour of the movie, only to be discarded without fanfare, making me wonder why Zombie didn't just confine them to an introductory prologue so we could focus on our hero quartet the rest of the time.

I'm gonna revisit Devil's Rejects too; I KNOW I haven't seen that one since theaters (but retain more memories of it), and in my mind it's still his best film - curious to see if it holds up to that. I don't outright love anything he's done, but I don't hate anything either (hell even his Halloween - his worst film - has stuff I enjoy), and while early reviews on 3 From Hell have been pretty scathing, I suspect I'll walk out enjoying it. I just hope I'm not doing it a disservice by refreshing my memory of the first two, when he was still hungry (and had more budgetary support for his ideas) and what he was doing was something wholly unique in the landscape. I'll know on Monday!

What say you?

P.S. I went to the 1,000 Corpses maze at Universal Horror Nights last night, my first time in one even though it's like the fourth time they've done one based on the film (which was partially shot on the same backlot), and not only did I quite like it, but was amused at scenes in the film that were essentially playing out the same as these mazes, with the girl wandering through corridors as things jump out at her. It's the first one you'll come across after you enter the park, so make sure you check it out if you plan on hitting up the event!

PLEASE, GO ON...

It Chapter Two (2019)

SEPTEMBER 5, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

I've revisited the 2017 It a couple times since my theatrical experience, and realized along the way that the real MVP here was the casting agent. The kids are all so good in the roles, it more than makes up for the movie's faults (some dodgy FX, a repetitive middle section), and keeps it rewatchable long after its ability to scare has worn off. It's almost like a hangout movie as opposed to a horror movie; I'd almost rather watch the kids go swimming and ride their bikes than fight the evil clown. And the tradition continues here in It Chapter Two; in addition to the kids all returning (some noticeably aged for scenes that are supposedly taking place during the original's events), the adult cast is largely terrific as well, and whenever I found myself sighing or even rolling my eyes at some of the script's decisions, I'd be instantly back on board whenever it got back to letting these performers bounce off each other.

You should all know the story by now: It, most commonly in the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård returns as well, naturally) returns to Derry every 27 years, and while the kids did a good job of putting him in his place and maybe having him go back to his hole a bit early, they didn't actually kill him at the end of the first film. Well it's 27 years later, and the murders have started again, prompting Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, a standout) to call his fellow Losers - all of whom moved away, unlike him - and cash in on their promise to come back if it ever returned. All but one of them do (the marketing has made zero attempt to hide this, so don't give me any "spoiler" shit), and the fun begins again.

While the book and original miniseries started in this present day and filled in the kids' part of the story via flashbacks, the 2017 film didn't have as much of a hint of the adult stuff - apart from the "Chapter One" title (which it only got at the end), there was nothing to suggest it wasn't a standalone story. And that worked perfectly there, but here it's slightly odd that the adult characters reunite literally moments after we've first seen Bill Hader, James Ransone, etc., not to mention maybe 20 minutes into a movie when it's something designed to be around the story's halfway point. But that's just testament to how good their chemistry is; in fact I flat out loved their Chinese restaurant reunion, as it really did give me the same feeling I get from some sequel with a long gap when two old friends share the screen again (Han and Leia in Force Awakens would be a good example), even though it occurs, in Bev's case, the next scene after we first see her in the form of Jessica Chastain.

I bring this up because the movie as a whole has to constantly overcome its peculiar situation: staying faithful to a book that they consciously went out of their way to rework the last time. I almost wonder if leaving the kids out of it entirely (or perhaps confining them to bookending scenes) would have been better, as most of the scenes with them are repeats of what we saw the first time. At around the hour mark, Mike tasks them with finding a token to sacrifice to perform a ritual he believes will stop the monster, and tells them they all have to go out on their own to find their own unique object, which means that a big chunk of the middle of the film robs us of its best asset: the adult cast's chemistry. In its place, we get a series of repetitive sequences where Ben, Bill, Bev, etc go off to retrieve their object, have a flashback about some scary incident that occurred in 1989 (one they didn't show us last time, obviously), then encounter It again in the present before running back to the inn where they're all staying.

This isn't too far of a departure from the book, where Mike asks them to go around town to restore their memories, but the "fetch quest" element is what makes it not work here, not to mention treading water narratively. In the book it made sense - we hadn't gotten the full story of their first encounter with It yet, so it was still filling in gaps, and it made sense to have each character remember those things when off on their own. But we already know what happened last time - seeing this or that isolated, previously unmentioned incident doesn't really offer us anything necessary, and it's worse if you aren't easily scared by BOO! scenes because that's their actual function anyway. And by changing the purpose for this "let's split up" mission in the first place, the movie opens itself up to a rather silly plot hole, as one character goes off to their old school and goes through his motions, even though his token was in his pocket the whole time anyway (and this isn't even a reveal - he shows it to us before he's even arrived in Derry). I understand the motive on the creative team's part for this 30 minute chunk of the film (get the kids back! Add some scares!) but it really does the movie no favors.

Another "quirk" of the film is a bit too much comedy. I am ride or die for Bill Hader and I think he is great as Richie, but they overuse his ability to make a joke - I'm of the "less is more" school of thinking, and he undercuts more than one scare or emotional moment with a crack that wasn't really necessary. When Bev actually "Beep Beep"s him at one point (the only instance of it used in the original context, I think?) I silently thanked the woman and hoped it would stick. Don't get me wrong - I laughed my ass off at a number of his lines (there's one in the clubhouse that damn near killed me) but they lean on it a bit too much. And there are other things that had me shaking my head, including a bizarre four second-long needle-drop during a scare scene that comes off as an editing error more than an intentional decision, and a truly awful nod to The Shining - in a movie where things had to have been cut (Bev's big line in the trailer isn't in it, for starters) I had to wonder why this stuff got left in at all.

And not for nothing, but the first movie made 700 million dollars worldwide - why couldn't WB improve their FX budget for the sequel? Once again It takes several forms, and while some look fine, others look downright last-gen video game level "not good", undercutting the effectiveness of what might otherwise be a perfectly good setpiece. And if you ever want to prove to someone the value of practical FX over CGI, just show them the fortune cookie scenes from the miniseries and this film back to back - it was one of the 1990 film's most lauded scare moments, and it doesn't work at all here. Skarsgård's stuff, unsurprisingly, always works perfectly, though I swear he's in it a lot less this time, which doesn't help the overall feeling that the film doesn't generate as much nightmare fuel as its predecessor (which itself wasn't exactly the scariest movie ever made). The suspense is there, particularly in the finale since they've proven they're not going to do everything the same way it was originally written, and there are a couple of great moments like Pennywise bashing his head against a funhouse mirror, but perhaps because of the length of the film spreading these moments out more, I can't say I was ever truly tense or unnerved (at least, not after the brutal opening scene, which book readers will know but was left completely out of the miniseries: the horrible death of Adrian Mellon).

But the cast! Chastain is always wonderful, but I loved seeing this two-time Oscar nominee fully commit to the traditions of a horror movie, including getting covered in blood and diving/ducking her way around whatever CGI nonsense was going on around her. Ransone (as Eddie) was also a terrific choice (possibly the best "look alike" beyond Stan, who... well, you know), though like Hader they tend to let him go for laughs too often (as well as F-bombs - between the two of them I swear they rack up more than the Pulp Fiction characters), and again, Mustafa as Mike was a knockout; his scenes of trying to explain what's going on to his old friends who have forgotten everything (including him) are kind of devastating in a way. James McAvoy as Bill was less impressive, however; not only did he look the least like his younger counterpart, but he never quite made the role his own either (doesn't help that young Bill was a standout for the original), and he also has to keep sighing his way through the film's endless running gag about how his writer character can never come up with a good ending, a nod to a traditional criticism aimed at Mr. King himself. It's cute the first time, but by the 5th or 6th? Not so much.

That said, the repetition of this idea, that the endings he had aren't good and need to be changed (when we meet Bill he's on the set of an adaptation of one of his books, where the director is insisting on a new ending), had me thinking that they were just warning us that things wouldn't go down the same way. And indeed, there are some modifications to the finale, most of which I think are improvements. In fact even though I've lived through ______'s death in two other incarnations at this point, this time was the first time I cried about it, and I attribute it to the actors (one in particular) just flat out killing the loss they were feeling. Also, Audra doesn't follow Bill to Derry this time, so Bill doesn't have to save her, allowing the focus to remain on our Losers the entire time, which is the right choice (there's also a new plot point involving a letter that I quite liked) and helped make THIS ending a winner.

(Also, I have to assume it's intentional since other King adaptations are given little nods here and there - Bill's writing room at the end looks almost identical to Gordie's at the end of Stand By Me, which is a lovely tribute to a fellow "the ending made me cry" King tale.)

So ultimately it's... a lot like the first one! If I were to rattle off a list of strengths (the cast, the general vibe, the story) and weaknesses (the FX, the repetitive middle) in broad terms you wouldn't even know which one I was talking about, which I guess makes it a successful sequel that unfortunately has to combat higher expectations (and a longer running time; it's basically one sequence shy of being a full three hours*), hence the very mixed (even downright negative) reviews. Is it a perfect film? No it is not - and neither was the 2017 one, and folks were pretty kind to it and also it made a lot of money, so I'm not sure why folks seem so surprised that this one is, for better or worse, following its structure and overall tone pretty closely. An "ultimate" cut has been teased; maybe it would work better in that regard (or, as one friend suggested, recut entirely to match the book's structure), but for now I think it's a solid followup that was probably as good as it could be considering they had the unenviable task of tackling the trickier parts of a book they wanted to remain faithful to, while also working around the fact that they had to live with their decision to make the first one as if this one might have never existed. I think they got it more or less right.

What say you?

*Indeed, we aren't shown Mike's own quest to get his sacrificial object, presumably because he already had gotten it before everyone arrived. I've seen complaints that the movie wastes Mike and points to this as an example, which is absurd on all levels because a. these same people were complaining about the entire "get the object" subplot anyway, so I don't know why they'd want it to last LONGER, and - SPOILER! - Mike isn't attacked by Henry this time around and forced to sit the big battle out. Instead, he goes down to the sewers with the others, giving Mike "more to do" than ever before. So it's a very stupid complaint in my opinion.

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Dead Zone (1983)

SEPTEMBER 2, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REVIVAL SCREENING)

I started watching SNL when I was 11, so obviously there were a lot of sketches that went over my head, but every now and then I'd enjoy one even though I wasn't even fully clued into the joke. One such sketch was when Christopher Walken was hosting and he played a psychic who could foresee inconsequential events in the future of anyone he touched ("You get a pistachio that's really hard to open!"), which I found hilarious and quoted all the time over the next few weeks. However, at the time I hadn't seen The Dead Zone, the 1983 film starring Walken, so I had no idea he was parodying one of his own characters.

I finally got around to seeing it sometime in college, and more or less immediately followed it with a read of the book, but hadn't seen it in its entirety since. So watching it on the big screen (part of a Stephen King themed programming block at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in LA*) was basically seeing it for the first time; all I really remembered was how it ended and that the film was kind of episodic, though even the details on those two things were hazy. Long story short, it was great to discover that the film is one of the best King adaptations.

It's also one of the best David Cronenberg movies, though it's worth noting it rarely feels like one of his. Apart from being shot in Canada, it's got zero of his trademarks; hell, it doesn't even have a score from Howard Shore, as the the studio insisted on Michael Kamen (who did a fine job, for what it's worth). I can't fault a guy for following his bliss, but I also can be sad that he didn't make more traditionally commercial/studio films - it's accessible, but there's a matter of fact-ness to the film's proceedings that I don't see other directors attempting, and it serves the subject matter well.

Indeed, calling it a "horror movie" is misleading; it only really qualifies because of the pedigree of its creative team. As I mentioned the film is episodic, and one such "episode" is a chunk in the middle where Johnny helps the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) find a serial killer, which is the closest it gets to standard horror territory. But Cronenberg isn't interested in kill or chase scenes, and allows just about all of the violence it contains (not much) to occur off-screen to boot. The serial killings are never mentioned prior to Bannerman's first appearance, and neither he or the storyline are mentioned again once Johnny identifies the killer (who offs himself) - you could essentially cut the entire chunk of the movie out and it'd have no effect on the rest.

After that the plot switches to Greg Stillson, whose significance is threaded into the narrative much earlier so it doesn't come out of nowhere like the killer. Stillson's an ambitious candidate for the New Hampshire senate (not sure why it was changed from Maine) who has no intention of stopping there - he wants to be President, and when Johnny manages to shake his hand at a rally, we see how devastating that will be (the specifics are vague, but he is apparently launching nukes at some enemy). Man, it's a good thing we will never have a President that's a crazy jerk like him with access to our weapons arsenal!

OK, better writers than me have written about those unfortunate parallels already, so I'll stop at the one joke. Instead I want to talk about a small part that really gutted me out of nowhere: when Johnny makes a small joke to his father about his recent tryst with his ex lover, who is now married to someone else (and whose child with that man is in the room when he makes said joke). My dad died a year after I got out of college, and less than a year after moving out of the family home into my own apartment; I was closer to a kid than a fully grown adult, so I have been forever denied the opportunity to talk to my dad as another man like Johnny was here, making a "boys club" kind of joke as opposed to one I could ever see myself telling my own father.

Indeed, I'm now as old as Walken was when he made the movie, and seeing that brief scene really hammered home how much I've missed out on having my pops as a kind of buddy I could complain to about work or life, or ask for advice regarding things that were not even in my foreseeable future the last time I was able to talk to him (i.e. parental concerns). I know King's books have these scenes of humanity that give me "the feels", but they rarely make their way intact to the screen - and I certainly wouldn't expect one of those exceptions to be in a David Cronenberg movie, as warmth isn't really his thing.

The structure can make it somewhat frustrating for viewers who aren't prepared for it (it may be why I only saw it the one time all those years ago), but if you put less weight on the narrative and focus on Walken's tragic Johnny, the film works like gangbusters. As you might expect, Walken isn't the first guy I'd assume to be playing the role of a normal school teacher who has to save the world, but he's terrific here, downplaying a lot of his usual tics in favor of becoming, in a way, a romantic lead. His scenes with Brooke Adams are heartbreaking, and he really disappears in the role - it's only when he gets enraged at a man ignoring his warnings that you'll see the crazed Walken you know from Batman Returns and things like that.

The movie came out in 1983, same as Cujo (which also featured Bannerman, albeit played by a different actor) and Christine. They all made about the same amount of money (in fact they would be back to back to back on the 1983 chart if not for The Rescuers breaking them up), but Dead Zone made the least of those similar amounts, which is typical since it's naturally the most well regarded, even with its dated idea of a politician's career sinking after he did something despicable. I'm glad Alamo chose to include it with its select group of King programming (they only picked I think six of the 40+ options), as who knows when I'd find the time to finally revisit it otherwise?

Also, for the longest time Cosmopolis was the only Cronenberg movie I got to see theatrically, which is just a horrible way to live. But thanks to rep screenings I've been able to see many others, including most of my faves (The Fly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, this), some even on 35mm. So now Cosmopolis is simply the *worst* Cronenberg movie I've seen on the big screen, and I can sleep easier at night.

What say you?

*Where I'll be hosting my beloved Cathy's Curse two weeks from today - if you're around and want to go, act fast as we're almost sold out!

PLEASE, GO ON...

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